6 Things Not to Say to an Atheist

I just encountered Diversity Inc’s “What NOT to say” series, and since they tended to focus on the more popular diverse groups, I thought I would give a shout to my atheist sisters and brothers. “Shout.” Hell yeah. Oh, and my style is a little rougher than theirs. Enjoy!

American atheists and non-believers are generally disliked and distrusted. Pew reports 48% of Americans feel the fact that our ranks are swelling in the United States is a bad thing. This seems to tweak the evangelical whites the most. The number of people who mark straight-up-atheist has risen to 3%. The aggregate block of people who are atheist, agnostic, and I-don’t-care has risen to around 19.6%.

So, who are the targets of all this agony and antagonism? Who should we not trust? Who are we atheists? We don’t share skin color, barcodes on our necks, piercings, the way our hair smells, or by the way we discipline our kids. We can hide in any crowd. We don’t have a defined symbol, either.

Some ‘unaffiliated’ folks even go to church, synagogue, or mosque. I was one of these, although I got over it. They do this not because they believe, but to make the people in their lives happy. This is because many atheists, agnostics, and nothing-in-particulars are in the closet, for reasons of their own, or on a journey away from their childhood belief system.

Some atheists meditate, some believe in aliens, others are agnostic, but they definitely don’t subscribe to the standard religious practices or organizations.

On the other hand, atheist statistics worldwide can be misleading. Some atheists, particularly in places where the government frowns on religion, are actually believers in a variety of faiths, but are not comfortable disclosing their beliefs. This list is not for them, not exactly, anyhow. They’re a complex group, and I recommend caution, particularly if you visit them in a country that has limited religious freedoms. These phrases will likely make them uncomfortable for a whole host of reasons, as will direct questions about religious freedom, but that’s another story altogether.

So, here’s my list of things that make atheist’s teeth itch and their eyeballs boil. (Yes, I have personally heard all of these things.)

“So, you don’t believe in right and wrong?” — Of course we do. We are not psychopaths. Not all of us, anyhow. We have been taught right and wrong. Often times, we have had to supplant the teachings of the churches we attended because they failed to reflect the beliefs that we feel in our hearts are right. If my religious text says I should “stone all insert-diverse-group-here” and I consider how it’s suggesting I stone a good person who I love, well…

Atheists often look beyond religion for moral guidance.

“He/She/They are in a better place.” — To an atheist, life and death are serious business. To us, this phrase trivializes both a person’s life and death. We don’t fantasize we’ll come back in some afterlife. So, when the people we love die, we’re sad. We want to deal with our pain. It’s hard. We accept that. We accept that death is a part of life. Or maybe we don’t and we buy cybernetic organs so we can give living forever a shot. Either way, we don’t imagine souls go floating away after people die.

Telling an atheist their loved one is in heaven now is like telling kids it’s okay they don’t have enough to eat because their mother has walked them across Detroit to buy smack and hasn’t fed them in a week. Not to worry! Someday they’ll all be presidents of the world and Snickers and Jelly Bellies will come flying out of their butt whenever they fart.

Actually, it feels more demeaning than that, because it takes advantage of a bad situation and makes it all about pushing religion on the atheist during an emotional crisis.

“You should come to church with me.” — ROFL. No.

Also–awkward! Please keep in mind: discussing religion is okay, even at work. In fact, it probably should be discussed more. Pushing it on people is not okay, though, and yes, this is pushing.

Even in personal life, it’s likely to get the inviter knocked down the friend-ladder. However, given the feelings of most Americans about atheists, that’s probably okay on both sides.

“I’ll pray for you.” — To an atheist, this is like telling us you’ve written to Santa Claus on our behalf, and asked Batman to come save us when we’re in trouble with the evil Siberian goat-men. Sometimes, it’s used to indicate disapproval for our choices, for example, it’s often said after the laughter dies down from, “You should go to church with me.”

“Aren’t you afraid to burn in hell?” — Ah, the favorite of door-to-door evangelists. This is actually a threat. To an atheist, this threat sounds like the speaker’s going to come back and make it happen. Crazy people say things like this. Crazy people who know where I live. *Close door, dial 9-1-1.*

“Everything happens for a reason.” — This one’s my personal favorite because of its frequency and the strange and humorous reasons people find to pull it out, so I saved it for last.

This phrase often follows on the heels of a huge natural catastrophe, but it could just as easily follow the death of a dog, or when a man decides to kill his entire family because he mixed drugs with alcohol after a bad day neutering cats.

This stuff is serious. When bad things happen, atheists kind of freak out when someone says there’s a “reason” for it. When it’s humans doing it, yes, sometimes there is a human reason. Sometimes we can label the whys and wherefores. But those reasons are often crazy reasons, not good reasons. Reasons of psychopaths and CEOs. Those reasons don’t make the way we feel about those events better. Often the reasons question the very fabric of our society and whether we as humans can survive until next Saturday.

When it’s a typhoon that flattens a city and kills tens of thousands of people? Atheists really struggle to see a reason in that. We’re okay assuming it’s a random act of nature. We’re also okay saying, hey, people shouldn’t have built homes below the waterline and then failed to keep up work on the dikes holding back the ocean. But again–bad reasons. Not comforting.

This phrase makes it sound like the reason the storm came and killed those people is because they were called to heaven or they had all committed some grave sin. Really? All of them? The kids? The dogs? The old people? The cops fighting for justice? The woman who just left her abusive husband? No. Atheists are probably more comfortable, or at least accepting of, a universe that is just weird and fairly random. That’s life.


I hope these tips help smooth out some of the rough edges as folks learn to deal with the trustworthy and friendly atheist next door.

Harlen Bayha

The Motivational Technologist